Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bad Handwriting Kills

That’s right- I said it. Bad handwriting actually kills people. Thousands of people die in the US every year because of doctors’ notoriously bad handwriting. Medical charts are misread. Pharmacists can’t decipher the prescriptions doctors write. In a landmark 1999 case, a cardiologist was fined $225,000 when his illegible handwriting caused a patient to be given the wrong drug- the patient had a heart attack and died as a result. Some states have now passed “safe script” legislation- pharmacists are encouraged to turn in doctors whose prescriptions they deem unreadable, and the doctors are issued fines. And the FDA now makes drug companies test new drug names by simulating the process of writing prescriptions by hand to lessen any confusion that might be caused. (Interesting article here.) But forget the doctors for a minute- how about this case in the UK? A guy was picked up for hunting for game on someone else's land, but the police report was illegible, so his lawyer was not able to prepare a defense. The lawyer said that it was a breach of human rights laws not to be able to read the case against the client and the magistrates agreed. The case was thrown out of court. All this is to say that handwriting is important. I’m really not trying to be some sort of penmanship elitist. Admittedly I’m no slouch when it comes to putting pen to parchment- my handwriting is pretty good by conventional standards. I even won the penmanship award in second grade. But I promise I won’t think any less of you if your grocery list doesn’t look like an engraved invitation. (“To: Mr. Whole Grain Bread and Guest. You are hereby invited into my trolly…”) As long as you can read it, who cares? But I think a person should be able to print or write legibly in any situation where someone else might ever have to read it. Simple as that. Am I asking too much? Do I sound slightly miffed? As if I have perhaps recently been on the receiving end of a chirographic catastrophe? Indeed, this rekindled interest in penmanship does come on the heels of an incredibly frustrating couple of days at work... I was asked to type a list of names, employers, addresses, and e-mail addresses from a training seminar- they’d passed around a sheet and everyone had signed up to receive their certification card for having been there. There were maybe 100 people on the list. No problem- should take less than an hour, right? Hah! I spent over 4 hours trying to decipher these people’s information! I’m not from Christchurch, so I am not familiar with the street names; I had to look a lot of them up on the internet to make sure I was reading them correctly. I had the phone book out, too, just in case by some miracle I could actually read a person’s full name, then I could look up the address in the book for clarity. I spent additional time calling the recipients’ workplaces to ask them for correct spellings… I would not have gone to all of this trouble if it were not for work- these people pay me, so I do what they say. But as far as I’m concerned, if you can’t even write your own name properly (let alone your address or email), then you simply do not deserve to receive whatever it is you’ve signed up to receive. (Oh, you didn’t get the e-mail/letter telling you that the out-of-town meeting was postponed and you need to change your flight and hotel arrangements? Too bad! We couldn’t read your writing- it’s your own fault you’re stuck at an empty HoJo’s in Tulsa! Hahaha!) I mean, four hours of my life were wasted trying to find patterns in one-line samples of people’s writing- that must be an “o” because that one over there is an “o,” but it looks like a “w”… Hmmm… For four hours I did this- these are your tax dollars at work, New Zealand! And I’m sure it happens all over the world- administrators of all sorts wasting countless hours, wanting to tear their hair out, trying to decode people’s insanely bad penmanship… Seriously, how hard can it be to write your own name? (Grrr… ) So, we know that people get dead, cases get thrown out of court, and office workers (myself a shining example) come dangerously close to going completely off the rails- all because of bad handwriting. But what would happen if we just typed everything or spoke into some kind of voice recognition device, as some people suggest? Could that be the solution to all of our problems? (Read an article about computers for doctors here.) Would we be missing out on anything by just not learning to write at all and letting technology take care of things? Not surprisingly, yes. According to a recent study, learning to write is actually an important part of the educational process. Kids do better with spelling and math when they don’t have to worry about not being able to write the letters and numbers correctly- when it’s more automatic. (Read more about it in this Newsweek article.) As crazy as it sounds, I have read arguments for dropping handwriting from the school curriculum entirely and “progessing” toward the use computers instead of teaching kids to write properly (see one article here, and be sure to read the comments). Basically, the author says that she never uses writing in her own life except for signing credit card receipts, and her kid is having trouble learning it in school, so they shouldn't teach it anymore because it's archaic anyway. There’s no way I could adequately respond to the absurdity of this article in this very small space, but let me just say that maybe this author lives a privileged life where she can do absolutely everything electronically, and maybe she doesn't care if her kid can ever sign his name without the use of a computer, but that’s just not the reality for most of us. We fill out insurance forms at the hospital; we take phone messages for co-workers. I just don’t think computers can be used for 100% of our written communication. To list a tiny few of the most obvious problems, what if the electricity is out? What if there’s an emergency and you need to leave a note for someone? What if you can’t afford a computer or voice recognition software? It’s absurd to think that there won't ever come a time in a person’s life when it's important to be able to write legibly. More and more things are able to be accomplished with the use of computers, but decent handwriting is still of vital importance, as far as I’m concerned. (And with that I bite my thumb at all of those guys whose offices I called to get the spelling of their names right. Punks.) Sooo… your handwriting is terrible- what can you do? Well, ideally you could seek out a handwriting improvement course like the ones being taken by some doctors. Or try these exercises from wikihow and ehow- it might even change your personality, as suggested in this (quasi-scientific) article. If anyone does any of these, I’d be interested to see how it goes! I think good writing will be with us for a long, long time. It may change form- italics is the new cursive (what does the future hold for cursive?) just like the Uni-ball is the new quill- but writing is always present in our lives. There’s still nothing quite so nice as receiving a handwritten letter from someone far away… And if you made it this far and have enjoyed this post, please let me know. I may just express my gratitude for your positive feedback with a handwritten thank-you note. =)

1 comment:

Gordon Simpson said...

New record post length, but interesting! That pseudo-scientific article about changing your personality through handwriting was pretty amusing ;)